Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Charlie Downs Interview

Charlie Downs, circa 1960. Crewcuts were all the rage.

Over a long career, cartoon veteran Charlie Downs animated on almost every kind of project. Disney and Richard Williams features, commercials, television specials and series, he did it all.

Charlie was born in Richfield Idaho on March 22, 1927. After service in the Navy, he studied at Chouinard Art Institute, afterward going to Disney Feature Animation where he started (as did hundreds before him) as an in-betweener.

Mr. Downs was active in TAG politics for decades. Not only was he a charter member of the guild and elected onto the board in the early fifties, he was elected as Vice President in 1960 and again in 1968. He served as President of the guild in 1964 and 1965. He passed away in July of this year.

In this 1991 interview, conducted two years before he retired from a forty-plus years career, Charlie talks about his early days at Disney and the joys of working in the Ward Kimball unit ...

Q: So, April Fool’s Day 1950 was when you started at Disney’s?

A: Uh huh. The training class I was in had John Dunne, Joe Hale, Bob Kirch. There were two others, but they quit before the first year was up.

Q: What did you do before the training program?

A: I worked for about six months at Douglas after I got out of Choinard’s. Before Chouinards, I was in the navy, on a tanker. The USS Misspilian.

Q: What was the first scene you worked on? "Alice in Wonderland"?

A: I only did one scene on Alice and that was doing in-betweens that they were putting on ones of the caterpillar, sitting on top of the toadstool. It was awful. I worked on “Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom” and “Melody Time,” and that’s because I had gone to Chouinards and knew design, and I was actually stylizing the characters around cleanups, making them look flat.

Q: Was that Kimball’s unit?

A: Not really. Ward was working through an old buddy of his that he rode back and forth to work with that was a director. Afterwards, he got off into the space show. Walt was trying to get the United States to put up money for space stuff, and so we were making the “Man in Space,” “Man in the Moon”, “Mars and Beyond.”

I had a hell of a good time on those. We did everything. We did the research and then we wrote it, we did the storyboards, we did a lot of the layouts, and then we animated it. And some of it we inked and painted.

Q: How long did that show last? I mean the working on it.

A: Oh, the three of them lasted about five years. There was about seven of us working for Kimball, like a small tv animation studio, and he had us do just everything.

Q: And Walt left you alone?

A: Oh, he came in for a meeting when we were all through with the storyboards and we would … In fact, I found out that he came in on the weekend before the meeting and looked them over, so he would have his answers ready. But we would go through the storyboard and then he’d recommend changes, and we’d make them.

Ward always cut the pencil tests into the reel, so he wouldn’t just look at them alone, so he could see how they hooked up. And he was rolling through there and he stopped and he ran the scene back, and he looked at it again. This was somebody else’s scene. And he looks at it, and he says: “That isn’t the way I would’ve done it,” and he ran it back again and then he stopped and he looked at me. And he says: “That doesn’t mean anything. You give a scene to five guys and you get back five different scenes, and they can all work.”

Ward used the scene.

Charlie Downs, second from right, at the retirement of Bob Youngquist (to Charlie's immediate right) in the Disney Penthouse Club (December 1970).


Jeff Massie said...

The Charlie Downs caricature was by Ric Gonzalez.

Graham Ross said...

Thanks for posting that.

Floyd Norman said...

The Ward Kimball Space Unit was incredible. I know. I was there. This is the way animation should be done.

Charlie, John, Art and Sven were amazing. Plus, the brilliant Ken O'Connor heading up layout. And, of course, Con Pederson before he went to work for Stanley Kubrick.

And, a very smart Walt Disney for leaving them alone.

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